Finding the Right Words

[Letter to various news organizations and emailed to friends September 16, 2001]

I feel obliged to begin by saying that those directly responsible for the events of September 11, deserve to be hunted down, tried and punished. I believe it is also important that we remain aware of the power of language to sway our feelings, hide the truth, and aid in justifying the deaths of more people.

Starting with Muslim Fundamentalists. Certainly we don't hold any animus toward Muslims in general or toward fundamentalists for that matter. If we did, we would be bombing the Vatican because a few Christian Fundamentalists bombed abortion clinics. Instead, let's simply use plain spoken terms such as enemies of the United States or fugitives, or even international criminals.

It's just a decade since the US pumped billions of dollars worth of weapons and training into Afghanistan to help the "Freedom Fighters" there. Among them Osama bin Laden. Is he not still a freedom fighter and still using the same terrorist tactics? Did we decry his tactics when they were used against the Soviets? How did you feel when Chechen forces committed acts of self-sacrificing terrorism against red army troops? Were they patriots and freedom fighters or "merely" terrorists?

Have not United States soldiers perpetrated individual acts of terrorism in the heat of battle? Do we not find terrorism an understandable tactic when a people are faced with an overwhelming, but conventional military force? If we are declaring war, then we should be prepared for the fact that terrorism will be used by both sides as a legitimate tactic.

During the Gulf War we learned a whole new vocabulary: precision-guided ordinance, smart bombs, collateral damage, command and control centers, crippling their infrastructure and bomb damage assessment. Coupled with the lack of objective news footage, it was easy to imagine our Tomahawk missiles lazily meandering down main street and striking at some unmanned power substation. Now we have those pictures up close and personal.

Imagine 288 Boeing jets slamming into targets in the northeast United States over a period of a week. That's the number of cruise missiles we sent into Iraq.

How much smarter can "smart weapons" get than to be piloted by a human being? 75% of the hijacked planes hit their targets, and one fell "harmlessly" in a wooded area. During the Gulf War, cruise missiles had about the same effectiveness; an estimated 81%. That means 52 of these did not hit their targets. Where did they land? Were they just a footnote in our "bomb damage assessment?"

If we were attacking New York, would we not deem the World Trade Center a "command and control" facility or at least part of an effort to "cripple their infrastructure?" Would we not term lower Manhattan as merely "collateral damage?" Would we not describe the Pentagon as a purely "military target", yet how many civilians work there during the day?

We seem determined to shoot something. Now that we have seen the images, let's stop using words that obscure the horror of what it entails.